Inhuman Swill : November 2010

Floppy puppy

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Between five and six this morning, I had a pretty awful dream. I was somehow in a big grungy rusty white panel van with my family, who I guess were visiting town. Except it wasn't my family as it exists now. It was my parents circa the mid-seventies and my four youngest brothers and sisters circa the mid-eighties. My three other siblings were not around, but for some reason I was being forced to go to church with the family—a stake conference, to be precise. I didn't want to go, but there didn't seem to be a way out, and as we parked in gray dusk light near the church I realized angrily that I was going to miss meeting my friend Kevin that evening for beer (which is actually on my schedule for tonight).

The church was a strange one inside, with a chapel that was much wider than it was long, and with the congregation seated on rising auditorium-style benches looking down at the pulpit. The only door in or out was in the corner behind and to the left of the pulpit, so if I tried to leave everyone would see. As I tried to work up my courage to leave, I realized that I wasn't wearing Sunday clothes like the rest of the family. I had on white shorts and a black T-shirt with something printed on it. (Probably something obscene, I don't know.) Feeling hideously exposed, I turned to my parents and loudly announced that I was leaving and they couldn't stop me.

Outside the church, I found Ella on the porch leaning against the wall beside the door. Apparently she'd been in the van and someone had left it open. Anger surged inside me. Ella was very groggy and didn't even lick me as I picked her up and cradled her in my arms. She flopped bonelessly, like a rag doll, and somehow I knew she'd been hit by a car that pulverized her skeleton. I kicked open the door to the church and strode into the chapel bearing my dog like an accusation. "You did this to her!" I screamed.

That's when I woke up.

Gee, I don't still have any issues.

Mixed signals

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So Laura and I met up after work down in Wicker Park, so we could each buy some jeans at the Levi's Store. Sadly, we left the store jeanless. (Well, I did still have on the ones I wore in.) I should have remembered this, but the Levi's Store only stocks sizes suitable for pipe-cleaner people, because of course there is no such thing as a tubby hipster.

The scales were somewhat balanced, though, by:

  • the man who crossed the street while Laura was waiting for me in front of the store to tell her how strikingly beautiful she was and how lucky her husband was.
  • the hostess at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria who carded us both.
  • the waitress who told me how cool my glasses were.
  • the drunk who apologetically addressed me as "young man" after not bumping into me (though he seemed convinced he had).
So all in all, last night was a push. And there was pizza and beer.

Frey-ing fish in a barrel

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After reading last week's New York Magazine feature article "James Frey's Fiction Factory," I was tempted to post another jeremiad against the author who proves himself time and again the slimiest, most brazenly unapologetic charlatan to disgrace our industry in the past decade.

Fortunately, doing so would be redundant, since I can just send you to John Scalzi's two excellent posts analyzing Frey's latest hijinks:

  • The Man in the Frey Flannel Suit
  • An Open Letter to MFA Writing Programs (and Their Students)

    All I will add is that you should never sign a contract with a man who claims there's no difference between fact and fiction.

  • Infidel dog

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    This morning,
    with a high of seventy degrees in the forecast,
    amazing for a November in Chicago,
    I drove the dog to Warren Park.
    That's where we go for a special treat
    instead of our usual neighborhood walk,
    because the squirrel chasing is most excellent,
    and there are never any cops there to harass you,
    a scofflaw walking his dog off its leash.

    We like to run up the steps of the sledding hill,
    which a parks department sign actually proclaims "Sledding Hill,"
    and then charge down the slope,
    after which we make our way around the skirt of the hill
    where the squirrels rummage through the leaves
    like so many bargain hunters.
    We crunch crunch crunch across the orange carpet,
    and if we're lucky we spot a squirrel far enough out
    in the open that Ella can chase it full-bore
    back to its tree.
    She has never once caught one.
    Or at any rate never killed one.

    Next we like to follow the cinder jogging path
    all the way around the little nine-hole golf course embedded
    like an off-center yolk
    in the albumen of the park,
    and that's exactly what we did this morning.
    I walked in the leaves at the side of the path,
    trying to encourage Ella to do the same,
    but unless she has a rodent, lagomorph or marsupial in her sights
    she prefers to walk on pavement. Go figure.

    We were on the south side of the golf course,
    the tall chain-link fence meant to protect us from flying balls
    off to our left,
    when I saw two men coming our way along the path,
    youngish men—younger than I, at any rate—
    neatly bearded men dressed in long robes the color of wet sand.
    It was already warm enough out that I was regretting
    the heavy coat I wore over my hooded sweatshirt.
    I snapped my fingers imperiously,
    calling for Ella to return to my side,
    to leave the path and get out of the way
    of the two youngish men engaged in animated talk.

    Infidel dog

    Ella is a good dog, shaggy-bearded herself,
    and she mostly listens. But I know that Muslims
    are afraid of dogs, or wary, or I think I know this,
    having watched many women in headscarves
    whisper urgently to their children to stay out
    of our path. At least,
    I assumed these men were Muslims. I admit I don't know
    the taxonomy of robes and caps and beards.
    They could have been Coptic Christians or even Jains for all I knew.
    At any rate, they didn't have turbans on
    so I knew they weren't Sikhs.
    But despite my commands, Ella didn't leave the path
    entirely. She shifted toward me, trotting along
    the very edge of the pavement, but didn't leave it altogether.
    "Ella," I hissed. "Come." She spared me only a sidelong glance,
    certain she had already obeyed me to the extent required.
    Letter of the law.
    I only wanted to be a good neighbor.
    The men were yards away.
    Dogs are not consistent with Islam.
    I braced for whatever.

    It's not that I thought anything worse
    than embarrassment might transpire,
    but my dog does have a history.
    She grew up in Queens, and she still has some of that attitude.
    We socialized her with people pretty quickly,
    my wife and I, but that didn't prevent her from
    barking her selectively bred head off at any unfamiliar creatures
    we encountered on the street,
    ones with strange colors, shapes or motions.
    Woman in full burqas, like shambling mounds of midnight.
    People in big hats.
    People on crutches or in wheelchairs.
    Black people--a sad reflection of the diversity
    of visitors to our apartment.
    The worst was the time she lost it at an old black woman
    in a wheelchair
    in front of a funeral parlor
    on Astoria Boulevard near the elevated tracks.
    As we dragged her in a wide, apologetic berth
    as far from the frightened woman
    as possible.
    As the woman's decked-out younger companions yelled at us.
    As if we'd trained our dog to hate old black women in wheelchairs.
    That was the worst.

    But it's not as if Ella has never met a Muslim man before.
    We used to walk her up Steinway Street in Queens,
    right past all the Middle Eastern restaurants and pastry shops
    and bookstores, and the men's social clubs with the curvy hookahs,
    and even past the mosque.
    Some people avoided us, though we never walked her
    up the middle of the sidewalk or in such a way
    as to block anyone's path.
    We didn't mean it as a provocation
    but more as a statement, an exercise of our rights
    to free association, an exercise in multiculturalism.
    And not everyone avoided us. One time
    a group of three thirtyish Egyptians stopped us
    as we walked Ella up the far edge of the sidewalk.
    One of them with a reedy mustache and a look of childlike wonder
    asked if our dog was friendly. "Yes," we said.
    He asked if he could pet her. "Of course," we said.
    We made her sit.
    Ella could care less about most strangers, but she doesn't like
    surprises, so we told the man to reach out slowly.
    His fingertips barely grazed the hair on the top of her head,
    while Ella sat patiently and yawned.
    "Good dog," we said, while the man straightened up
    with a smile as wide as the world on his face.
    You could see him already composing the story in his head
    that he would tell his friends,
    about how he petted a dog
    and didn't even get struck by lightning.
    He'll be dining out on that one for years.

    We loved that neighborhood for reasons like that meeting
    on the street. We loved it for our friend Ali,
    who would never touch Ella because he was cooking
    in his little restaurant, but who always had a kind word for her,
    and still asks about her when we visit.
    I love it for the times I stayed out all night drinking
    with Ali, who knew everyone, for the times he Virgiled me
    into the social club across the street from his restaurant,
    where I smoked shisha with the Egyptian men and listened
    to monologues on history and hieroglyphics,
    on all the important things that Egypt invented, or did first.
    Our travels in Cairo and Luxor and Petra and Amman,
    talking Islam and politics and Christianity
    with virtual strangers in coffee shops and cafés,
    sometimes seemed the inevitable endpoint of our years
    in that neighborhood, which we loved.

    What I'm trying to get at is, I don't hate Muslims,
    and I especially don't want any Muslim to think I hate Muslims,
    or that my dog hates Muslims.
    Which she doesn't.
    The two men on the path had nearly drawn even with us,
    and Ella still hadn't moved off the pavement.
    But there was enough room for her and the nearest man to pass
    each other without touching, which they did.
    "Good morning, sir," he said to me with a cheerful trill,
    his face like a gibbous moon, beaming.
    "Good morning, how are you today?" I said with a smile
    as wide as Lake Michigan,
    a smile trying a little too hard,
    wanting to be seen as a friend, not a fraud,
    and reflect the genuine shiver of camaraderie I felt.
    "Very well, thank you," he said, dipping his head.
    He, the respectful, non-threatening immigrant,
    me, the welcoming, tolerant native,
    both playing the part of open-minded, ideal world citizen.
    Maybe he was born here, I don't know, and maybe I was not,
    as far as he knew.
    No matter.
    We both still played our proper roles—
    roles still, even if based on a true story,
    inspired by real events.
    I might wish for a deeper connection,
    a meeting of the minds,
    but at least we all passed on our leisurely errands
    without baring our teeth,
    without drawing our guns,
    and I can live with that.

    Ella, more alien than us all,
    paid none of our human posturing the slightest mind.


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    I make it my general practice
    not to drink and write.
    At least, I try not to drink
    when writing fiction,
    where the prose should be clear
    and lucid as water,
    even as it refracts the light.

    But poetry's a different matter.
    A little whisky never
    hurt a poem. Not much, anyway.
    Certainly not this
    glass of it, distilled from smoke
    that might have
    scribbled words like these in
    the air as it
    jittered away, leaving only this
    amber residue,
    not so transparent as it appears.


    Four, no, five buffoons

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    It's easy to see why Drafthouse Films (the new distribution arm of Austin's great Alamo Drafthouse theater chain) was able to snap up the rights to British TV vet Chris Morris's feature film debut, Four Lions. Probably no one else wanted to touch it. It's not a movie for everybody.

    I saw Four Lions last night at a preview screening at Piper's Alley, and I thought it was the funniest movie I'd seen since, well, The Hangover. Like any number of other comedies, it's the story of a buffoonish group of losers determined to succeed at something they clearly have no talent for. What makes Four Lions different is that the something is jihad. Will you like it? That depends on how much taste you have for laughing at suicide bombings. (Mild spoilers may lie ahead.)

    Omar and Waj are two would-be British-Pakistani mujahideen who get ejected from an Al Qaeda training camp for rank incompetence. Undeterred from their dreams of glorious martyrdom, they tell the rest of their goofy terror cell back home in England that they've been sent back to carry out an important mission. The antics of the group, the most volatile member of which is a loose-cannon white convert to Islam, as they bumble their way toward a series of suicide bombings are very funny stuff, laugh-out-loud stuff. But you can't help but feel a certain amount of discomfort laughing at this gang of sincere fools.

    Are we laughing at stereotyped Muslims? I don't think so. We're laughing at comedic types, certainly, but as embodied by characters who are actually more three-dimensional than you might expect in this sort of movie. Along with the uncomfortable laughs, we get a look inside the rage, the faith, the yearning for community, and the yearning for glory that prods a certain type of personality into taking up a violent cause. And the self-styled jihadis are hardly the only Muslims we meet. In the course of the film we encounter a wide range of Muslims, most of whom want nothing to do with violence, and a few of whom get caught up in it anyway, in different ways.

    I guess a movie like Four Lions has to be approached in two ways. First, does it just plain work as a movie? I'll get back to that question, because I want to tackle the second question first: Is it wrong to make a comedy about Muslim terrorists at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is already running at such a fever pitch?

    I think the answer to this question is no. If this were an anti-Muslim film, then I might give a different answer. But the comedy, the bumbling antics, as discomfiting as they may be, use familiar types and tropes to draw us into an unfamiliar milieu. And when things start to go pear-shaped for the conspirators, we realize we've come to sympathize with these characters, and that we're emotionally invested in their fates. Despite the death and mayhem (and make no mistake, this is a black comedy, one in which Western law enforcement is just as confused, jumpy, and mistake-prone as the terrorists), that may be the most subversive aspect of the movie—sympathy for the devils. If this movie is anti-anything, it's anti-stupidity, and sadly there's plenty of that commodity to go around.

    So does it work as a movie. Yes. I found the humor a little uneven, especially toward the beginning, before I'd assimilated the rhythm of the movie and its dialects. (Yes, the accents in Four Lions take some getting used to, and even later I had to strain to understand them at times. But don't let that scare you off.) Bottom line, this is a movie that only seems to treat a serious subject cavalierly. As a comedy, side-splitting and jaw-dropping as hell, it allows you to hope that everything might turn out well in the end. But as a story of would-be martyrs, you have to ask yourself, "Turns out well for whom?"

    It's a measure of the power of Four Lions that it ultimately can't be slotted easily into either set of expectations.

    [Four Lions, already playing in a few cities, opens tomorrow in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Katy, Duluth, Asheville, and Somerville. Go see it. You'll have a great time, insha'Allah. And boy, will you ever have something to talk to your date about afterwards.]


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    Just received another instance of one of my favorite emails. It goes something like this:

    Hi! You've been such a help and inspiration, I'd like to send you a copy of my new self-published book. I'd really like to read some of your books too. Which one do you suggest I start with?

    Flattering, right? But you have to know how to read an email like this. Here's what it means:

    I know I'm imposing on you so I'll salve my conscience by pretending to want to read your stuff. Only I'm too lazy to do my homework, so I'll let you tell me what books you've written instead.

    If I were a real asshole instead of just pretending to be one, I would write back:

    It doesn't matter which one you start with, so pick whichever one out of all one looks best to you.

    Good thing I'm not that kind of asshole.


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    It's getting harder these days
    to tell the crazy people from the sane,
    what with technology the way it is.

    It used to be that talking to yourself
    in public was a sure sign of instability,
    like wearing a sign that said,
    "Steer clear of me, I'm not quite right,
    I might be dangerous, if only to myself."

    But now we all do it, carry with us
    an invisible chorus of voices
    in a magic Bluetooth cloud, insistent, demanding
    voices clamoring for attention, screening out
    the real world around us, making us each
    more dangerous than twenty actual crazy people,
    a more present threat to public safety than
    any potential suicide bomber.
    Or at least more annoying.

    Thorazine does nothing at all to fix it.

    The implications of eye contact have changed too.
    It used to be that when someone looked at you
    when they spoke, it meant they were talking to you.
    Not anymore. This morning as I was walking the dog,
    I heard the rasp of a window being shoved open,
    and a shrill voice saying, "I told you
    last time what was going to happen."
    I looked up to see a head and shoulders push out
    a fourth-floor window, and the person
    was looking right at me. "What?" I called up,
    thinking that Ella and I had been mistaken
    for someone else, maybe someone who hadn't
    cleaned up after a mess on the sidewalk.
    "Oh, I'm on the phone," said the smiling head,
    pointing to its ear, and carried on talking
    in the same tone of voice, as if both
    conversations were one. And maybe they were.
    I still don't know.

    Crazy, right? I'll say!

    But I was talking about people's voices.
    Not the ones they speak with, but the ones
    they hear in their heads, the ones no one else
    can hear. I don't have a Bluetooth earpiece,
    but I still hear voices in my head. Often
    when I have something important I need to say
    to someone, I rehearse the conversation
    in my head, and sometimes, during my lines,
    I'll slip and speak them out loud. Or more often,
    when I'm remembering an awkward interaction
    from earlier that day and thinking how
    I could have said something better,
    I'll just say it that better way, it just pops out,
    and I might be driving, or walking
    down the street, or lying in bed with my wife,
    and I know I've just said something out loud,
    out of the blue, out of nowhere, out of left field.
    I'm busted. And my wife will
    put down her magazine and give me that look,
    you know the one, the one that's half amused,
    half worried, the one that says,
    "Are you crazy, husband?"
    And maybe I am, I don't know.

    No, of course not. I do it all the time too.

    But I was trying to talk about how hard it is
    to tell the sane people from the crazies
    these days. Personally I think cell phones
    are just an excuse. All this time
    most of us have just been passing,
    and now we don't have to pretend anymore.

    Cheap bitch

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    Don't call Ella cheap, but she did just get less expensive. Take an extra 30% off her 2011 calendar when you enter the coupon code EARLYBIRD305 at checkout! (Offer good through November 15, 2010.)

    Ella-Mental 2011 13-Month Calendar

    Though Laura and I have fallen down on the job for the past few years, we've finally gotten it together enough to publish a sequel to the immensely popular Ella-Vation 2006 and Ella-Tion 2007 calendars.

    Yes, our furry little 33-pound calendar girl is back in her biggest productino ever, with an extra month thrown in for free:

    Ella-Mental 2011 13-Month Calendar

    For a limited time, only $14.39! Order all you want. We'll print more.

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